The San Juan Daily Star
Trump’s GOP rivals, shielding him, reveal their 2024 predicament
By Michael C. Bender and Maggie Haberman
Last week, Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida took a measured dig at Donald Trump by publicly mocking the circumstances that led New York investigators to the former president.
“I don’t know what goes into paying hush money to a porn star to secure silence over some type of alleged affair,” DeSantis said.
But as soon as Trump was indicted this week, DeSantis promptly vowed to block his state from assisting a potential extradition. In a show of support for his fellow Republican, DeSantis called the case “the weaponization of the legal system to advance a political agenda.”
In the hours after a grand jury indicted Trump, many of his potential rivals for the Republican presidential nomination snapped into line behind him, looking more like allies than competitors. All passed on the opportunity to criticize him, and some rushed to his defense, expressing concerns about the legitimacy of the case.
The turnaround by some prospective contenders was so swift and complete that it caught even the Trump team off guard. One close ally suggested to Trump that he publicly thank his rivals. (As of Friday evening, he had not.)
The reluctance to directly confront Trump put his strength as a front-runner on full display. His would-be challengers have been sizing up political billiard balls for the possibility of an increasingly tricky bank shot: persuading Republican voters to forsake him, while presenting themselves as the movement’s heir apparent.
In one reflection of Trump’s durability, his team said it had raised more than $4 million in the 24 hours after the indictment was made public by The New York Times.
“There has been a narrative for a while that we could have Trump policies with someone more electable, but the reaction to the indictment showed that power is unique to Trump,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said in an interview. “Trump was the leading contender for the nomination before the indictment, and now he’s the prohibitive favorite.”
The closest any possible Republican challenger came to criticizing Trump was former Gov. Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas, who told Fox Business Network on Friday that while the yet-to-be-revealed charges might not end up being substantial, Trump should “step aside” now that he has been indicted.
A day earlier, former Gov. Nikki Haley of South Carolina, Trump’s most prominent official challenger so far, suggested the indictment was politically motivated, writing on Twitter, “This is more about revenge than it is about justice.”
The overwhelming unwillingness to attack or even criticize Trump reflected an unspoken fear among many of his rivals that Republican voters will punish any candidate who seems to be capitalizing on his legal problems. Rather than run hard against him, contenders appeared content to orbit around Trump, who remains the most powerful force in Republican politics.
Even before the indictment, Trump’s team began waging what amounted to a political war on the Manhattan district attorney who brought the case. At almost every turn, his allies have hammered the prosecutor, Alvin Bragg, as being a puppet of Democratic forces seeking to harm Trump. Bragg’s office has defended its integrity.
“I was one of the early people to break with Trump on some of the things he was doing, but I think this is kind of outrageous,” former Rep. Francis Rooney, R-Fla., said in an interview. “This is the best thing to happen to Trump in a long time. It’s stupid, and they have no case.”
On Friday, Trump’s team remained focused on the primary contest at his campaign headquarters in West Palm Beach, Florida. Advisers anticipated a continuation of their recent strategy, which has included smaller events and just one major rally since Trump opened his third White House bid in November.
Still, it was an open question of how facing criminal charges — and potentially more to come in three other criminal investigations — would help Trump in a general election. Moderate Republicans and independent voters have peeled away from him during the past three election cycles.
One major donor, who is not yet committed to a 2024 candidate, doubted that the indictment would sway many deep-pocketed Republicans who have already made up their mind one way or the other about Trump, calling it a “so what?” moment.
Trump’s team was working Friday to chart a course forward. The indictment a day earlier had surprised his aides, although his political team was far more prepared than his legal team. His team had been working on what it calls “maximizing the bump” from the indictment, preparing for a fundraising blitz and working on speech drafts for coming events.
Trump’s super political action committee, MAGA Inc., announced Thursday that it would run ads attacking DeSantis over his votes on Medicare and Social Security while he was in Congress.
Shortly after that announcement, DeSantis posted his support for Trump on Twitter.
The Florida governor’s statement about a politically motivated attack was particularly noteworthy, not just because he is widely viewed as Trump’s chief presidential rival, but also because last year, he removed a twice-elected state attorney whom he accused of politicizing the job by trying to “pick and choose” what laws to enforce locally.
For the most part, Trump’s potential rivals echoed previous criticisms of the New York investigation, or they said nothing at all.
Former Vice President Mike Pence, who had been booked for a CNN interview before the indictment, condemned it as politically motivated. Former Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, who has been the most outspoken possible contender in criticizing Trump, said nothing. Neither did Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina.
In the meantime, as Friday wore on, Trump solicited opinions from a wide range of associates, advisers and friends. “Can you believe this?” he said to one person after another, vilifying Bragg with expletives in some cases. His wife, Melania Trump, was said to be furious on her husband’s behalf.
Donald Trump’s eldest sons denounced the indictment in interviews and on social media. He planned to keep a normal schedule through the weekend, including rounds of golf and attending a gala at his club, people familiar with the plans said.
Trump also solicited opinions about his legal team, as his advisers discussed adding people amid a round of finger-pointing as to why there had been such a strong belief that the indictment was weeks away, if it was happening at all.